"If you don't believe in God then why do you talk about religion?" is a question that I have gotten several times from the Christians around me. In asking this question they are making several assumptions. The question assumes that the god in question should be the Christian god, and also implies that they feel if you reject religion you have no reason or right to talk about or be critical of it.
This ignores that fact that many politicians are not just Christian, but campaign and vote on the conservative theological values of the more fundamentalist minority of American Christian churches. Obviously basing their politics on their religion means that their religion can affect my life, and I have as much right to be critical of that as any other way of thinking that influences politicians. It's also ignoring the fact that Christians feel no such restrictions to talk about things they disagree with (If you believe in Jesus why do you talk about Allah/Buddha/Scientology/non-belief?).
When I'm asked that in so many words those are my usual responses, mainly objections to the assumption that I have no right to criticize something related to their belief system. But when the question is posed with honest curiosity, along the lines of "what is your interest in religion?" then they have asked a very good question. It's a good question because it requires introspection to answer it fully and properly.
I've been asked the question often enough in one way or another, so I decided to find out not why I object to being silenced on the subject, but why do I feel compelled to research and talk about religion and Christianity in particular.
First of all, I was raised as a Christian. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church, enjoyed learning about God and Jesus, became distressed when I thought my family might miss church, and even volunteered to help teach 4th and 5th grade Sunday School when I was in high school. By the standards of my home church I was a good and enthusiastic example of Christianity. It was a major part of my identity at the time, and as such, being an ex-Christian will always be an important part of my identity moving forward.
I have no desire to ignore how I was raised or ignore who I used to be, so I study Christianity and the justifications that Christians give for their beliefs in god to better understand who I was and what has and hasn't changed. In retrospect, my relationship with the Christian god concept was emotionally abusive, I was gullible, I was submissive, I was passive, and I thought everything would always turn out all right if I just kept believing what I was told to believe. How do immunize myself from being taken advantage of like that in the future? I have to understand how I thought about things in the past, what irrationalities I was vulnerable to and still may be.
Another reason is that, when you get right down to it, atheism is boring. It's not belief with absolute certainty that there are no gods. It's not becoming a disciple of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet, and Harris. It's not anything proactive. It's just saying, "I am not convinced by the claims that theists are making." I am more interested in examining why I'm not convinced by these claims. I obviously can only do this by responding to the god claims that are proposed by theists. Fortunately there is always something to respond to, as there is always at least one group of theists trying to push reasons to believe on those around them, or are doing outrageous things in the name of their god or gods.
On a related note, critiquing theistic claims hones my rationalism. Rationalism has no doctrine or dogmas to learn, rather it's a set of skills for critically evaluating claims and evidence and finding an answer that is the best fit to reality. However, the doctrines of other groups make excellent practice for rationality. Again, there is no set of beliefs passed down by Richard Dawkins that atheists have to memorize and evangelize. Atheism and rationalism is about learning to think for yourself, and not just take the word of someone else for what you should believe.
Used with permission of the artist. See more "Atheist Eve" at the ACA website (Atheist Community of Austin)
Putting effort into studying Secular Humanism is useful, but only to an extent. I admitted to myself that I was an atheist only after I realized that my core values did not align with Christianity. Reading Humanism literature helps me to figure out the best ways to articulate those values for effective communication, but by using rational thinking and ethical principles, I don't need to look to others to decide what my values should be. So Humanism is just not as interesting for me at this time.
What does interest me is examining my values in the context of the religion I was raised in. Where and why do I disagree, when did I start to realize that my values didn't match, how I managed to develop such a tolerant and reason based set of values in the first place while growing up in the church. Challenging the status quo may not be popular with some, but it helps me to learn about myself more than just looking to people that agree with me.
And finally, one of the most important reasons, this is still new to me. I realized less than a year ago that I was an atheist. It was just over half a year ago that I could admit it to my wife. I've stepped out of Plato's cave and I want to continue to explore this new way of looking at the world, and compare it to the narrow view I was previously limited to. In my eagerness to share what I feel is an amazing revelation I'm going to keep coming back into a cave and try to convince the people I care about that some of the things they think are real are just the shadows on the wall.
In Plato's story the people rise up and kill the man that had left the cave, out of fear and anger over his challenge to their conception of the world. Am I going to continue to offend? Probably. In my experience, strong and conservative theists don't even like having to acknowledge that someone can live without their god and not be suffering horribly. It's not my goal to offend though, I'm talking about religion because it is important to my life and the lives of people I care about, even though I don't believe.
In search of reason,